How to Do a Lat Pulldown

The lat pulldown machine is one of the most popular pieces of equipment in a gym. Here's why the move is ideal for back strength, and how to do the exercise at home.

Lat Pulldown
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If you find yourself hunched over in pain after picking up a heavy package, or you always roll out of bed feeling extra tight, it could be poor back strength to blame. Back strength and stability are crucial for proper posture and preventing or relieving pain and tightness. Similarly, if your posture is poor or you sit a lot (hello, every desk job ever), your upper back muscles can become weak, leading to muscular imbalances, muscle strain, and further issues such as headaches and backaches, according to the Journal of Physical Therapy Science.

But physical activity, especially strength training, can help prevent these issues and improve any current aches and pains, according to a review published in Healthcare. One exercise that can build strength and stability in your back is the lat pulldown, which is a popular pulling exercise that works several back and arm muscles, especially the latissimus dorsi (the large, flat muscles that cover your mid- to lower- back) for which this exercise is named.

Here's how to do lat pulldowns correctly, as demonstrated by Natalia LePivert, C.P.T., personal training leader at Life Time Palm Beach Gardens. Plus, you'll learn different ways to modify or intensify the lat pulldown exercise to fit your needs and goals.

How to Do a Lat Pulldown

Good news: Most well-equipped gyms have a lat pulldown machine. Throughout the movement, keep your abdominals engaged and avoid arching your lower back or shrugging your shoulders to maintain a safer posture, suggests LePivert. This stabilized position prevents you from swinging and creating momentum throughout the movement, which reduces the effectiveness of the exercise and can also lead to back strain.

In addition, you'll want to maintain control of the weight both in the eccentric and the concentric movements, says LePivert. (FYI, the eccentric phase is when your back muscles lengthen to return the bar to the top of the lat pulldown machine.) You'll be fighting against gravity to keep the weight under control, and using your back muscles to slowly return the bar increases the muscle-strengthening effect of this exercise. During the concentric phase, when you pull the bar toward your chest, engage your back muscles and move slowly so you don't rely on any momentum. This will increase the effectiveness of the exercise.

Of course, you should always get your doctor's clearance before performing a new exercise. Avoid lat pulldowns if you have a neck or back injury or if you feel any pain, aside from expected discomfort from correctly engaging your back muscles enough to challenge them.

A. Sit facing the bar. If necessary, adjust the seat height and/or the knee pad to allow knees to bend at 90 degrees while keeping feet flat on the floor.

B. Extend arms to reach overhead and grasp the bar with hands slightly wider than shoulder-width, palms facing toward you. This is the starting position.

C. Lean torso slightly back and pull the bar toward chest (just below collarbone) during an exhale. Think of pulling elbows and shoulder blades down and back as you pull the bar.

D. Slowly return the bar by raising and extending arms overhead and abducting shoulders on an inhale.

The Key Lat Pulldown Benefits

Lat pulldowns are a relatively simple exercise that, when done with proper form, activate your back muscles with help from your shoulders, biceps, and core. Here are the benefits of adding lat pulldowns to your workout and improving your back strength.

Improves Posture

Poor posture can lead to aches and pains and make daily functioning uncomfortable, according to the Journal of Physical Therapy Science. Sitting or standing in less-than-optimal postures (yes, that includes slouching on the couch while watching Netflix) can happen when your back and other core muscles, such as your abs, are weak.

"Lat pulldowns increase overall upper body strength by engaging multiple muscle groups simultaneously," says LePrivet. The muscles responsible for posture are located directly in the back. "Knowing this, it would benefit the general population to work on these postural muscles to combat the daily routines of texting, being on the computer, and always looking down or hunching over that causes us to have bad posture," she adds.

Improved posture from strengthening your back and core will reduce your risks of developing low back pain, which is an issue that up to 80 percent of adults deal with at some point in their life, according to Healthcare.

Prevents Muscular Imbalances

Muscular imbalances can occur when you spend a lot of time sitting, especially in positions that are not optimal for your anatomy. Sitting weakens your back while causing your chest muscles to become tight and short, an effect known as upper-cross syndrome. Strengthening and stabilizing the muscles of the upper back and rear shoulders improves and prevent muscular imbalances that can lead to pain and dysfunction, according to research published in Nature.

Back and abdominal muscle imbalance increases your risk of developing back pain even further. When back muscles are weak, they can't protect your spine and supporting muscles from mechanical stress. Strengthening your back is essential for preventing these effects, according to research published in The Journal of Functional Morphology and Kinesiology. "Lat pull-downs will help address muscular imbalances because they engage everything in your scapula and sub-scapula, as well as your muscles in the thoracic spine," says LePrivet. (FYI, the thoracic spine muscles are located in your upper back and work to support your neck, head, and shoulders.)

Builds Functional Strength

"Lat pulldowns help improve strength and performance during movements that use your back muscles," says LePrivet. For instance, lat pulldowns will push you toward your first pull-up or a new personal best for your deadlift. And because lat pulldowns can be adjusted to your personal fitness and strength level, they're perfect for strength training newbies or veterans alike. The pulling motion is similar to tougher strength exercises such as barbell rows or pull-ups, but it's also adjustable using a cable machine or resistance bands.

Lat pulldowns also help you perform everyday movement patterns such as pushing, pulling, and lifting overhead. Think of your weekly grocery trip: You'll need to push your cart, pull your favorite protein bars off the shelf, lift items out of your cart onto the conveyer belt, and carry all your groceries into your house (in just one trip, obviously). You can thank lat pulldowns for helping you with each step of that process.

Muscles Worked By Lat Pulldowns

Lat pulldowns work several muscles in your upper body. These include your back muscles (latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, trapezius, teres major), shoulder and arm muscles (rear delts, infraspinatus, brachialis, brachioradialis, biceps), flexors of the wrist and hand, and abdominals.

Lat pulldowns will work similar muscle groups to pull-ups and chin-ups and is a good substitute for those more challenging exercises. Use lat pulldowns to work your way to hitting your first bodyweight pull-up, or use them to increase the volume of work if you can only perform a couple of pull-ups at a time. This will help you get more pull-up reps in no time.

Lat Pulldown Variations

There are several ways to do lat pulldowns depending on how you choose to grip the bar. You can grasp it with your palms facing you (which will engage your biceps) or away from you (which focuses on your back and shoulders even more). Or, try experimenting with a wide grip lat pulldown to really work the lower lats vs. a more narrow shoulder-width grip, which hits the trapezius and rhomboid at the top of the shoulder. You can even use a lat pulldown bar with handles attached, allowing your palms to face each other in a neutral grip and letting you lift heavier than a wide-grip position would.

Regardless of how you choose to grasp the bar, choose an option that feels natural and targets the intended muscles. Try switching up how you perform lat pulldowns every few weeks for more variety and different muscle stimulation.

Modification: Banded Lat Pulldown

Don't have access to a lat pulldown machine? Good news: You can also perform lat pulldowns at home using resistance bands. This is a beginner-friendly, convenient way of performing the movement that still provides strengthening benefits.

"Resistance bands are great options for beginners and for those who travel a lot or work out at home," says Privet. Secure the resistance band at a high place (such as a door frame) and perform the movement, she adds. You'll need a resistance band that has handles for this variation.

A. Kneel on the floor or sit on a bench below the anchored band.

B. Extend both arms overhead without shrugging shoulders. Grasp the handles of the resistance band with hands slightly wider than shoulder-width, palms facing you. This is the starting position.

C. Lean torso back slightly and pull handles toward chest (just below collarbone) during an exhale. Imagine pulling elbows and shoulder blades down and back as you lower the band.

D. Slowly return the band to the initial position by stretching arms and abducting shoulders on an inhale.

Progression: Wide Grip Lat Pulldown

Using a wider grip can be more challenging as it takes the arm muscles out of the equation, putting more emphasis on your back muscles. LePrivet recommends playing with the timing of your lat pulldown for an extra challenge. "Changing the tempo can add a little more challenge to this exercise and allow you to push yourself a little further," she explains. "Try slowing down the concentric movement or adding a one-second pause at the bottom of the movement."

A. Sit facing the bar. If necessary, adjust the seat height and/or the knee pad to allow knees to bend at 90 degrees while keeping feet flat on the floor.

B. Extend arms to reach overhead and grasp the bar with palms of hands facing away from you, wider than shoulder-width apart. This is the starting position.

C. Lean torso back slightly and pull the bar toward chest (just below collarbone) during an exhale. Think of pulling elbows and shoulder blades down and back as you pull the bar.

D. Slowly return the bar to the initial position by stretching arms and abducting shoulders on an inhale.

Lat Pulldown Common Mistakes

Two of the most common mistakes people make when performing lat pulldowns are using too much weight (which does not allow for proper technique, full range of motion, and control of the movement) and leaning too far back, according to LePrivet. "Maintaining a neutral spine protects your lower back and avoids injuries," she adds. Aim to lean back about 20 to 30 degrees during your pulldowns.

Another notable mistake includes pulling the bar too far down instead of stopping at the point where your elbows would need to move backward to continue moving. "Avoid putting excessive stress on the shoulder joint — the bar shouldn't go too far below the collarbone," she cautions.

Lastly, avoid using momentum. "Perform the movement [in a] slow and controlled [manner]," advises LePrivet. "Doing fast movements uses momentum and reduces the engagement of targeted muscles." Plus, doing lat pulldowns at a slower pace increases your time under tension, leading to major training benefits such as increased muscle growth and strength, better movement patterns, and increased tendon health.

How to Add Lat Pulldowns to Your Exercise Routine

Lat pulldowns are a great exercise to add to any upper body routine and can boost muscular gains in and out of the gym. "Lat pulldowns help develop strength in your back muscles and increase performance in other movements, such as pull-ups and chin-ups, and is a great accessory exercise to barbell movements," says LePrivet. And a stronger back means less chance of irritating back pain and further muscle imbalances.

With so many variations of lat pulldown machine attachments and grips, lat pulldowns bring variety to your workouts, adds LePrivet. Try adding 3 to 5 sets of 10 to 15 reps of lat pulldowns to your program to help you develop a strong back.

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